Mucking Through Marengo
As we leisurely wade through the winding chambers of Clifton Avenue, I imagine that the walls were spun into soft curves on a potter's wheel. An underground river, long since drained to a stream, actually shaped the passageways.
The stream narrows, and we climb up a muddy hill to the Beartooth passage, where previous cavers found the tooth of an Ice Age bear. Along the way, Garry is quick to point out where past visitors misplaced their fingers and feet. A single graze against a stalactite can leave an oily residue that forever stunts its growth. Even after years of erosion, helmet imprints on low muddy ceilings stay deeply etched. Dismembered formations never grow back the same. I realize that the rope we have followed since climbing up to Stewart Hall is not only a guide. We stick near the rope to keep ourselves from making tracks in untouched areas.
After our snack, I look at my watch. 3:00 p.m. We've been underground more than four hours. My eyes, now adjusted to the darkness, are sensitive to the tones of a cavernthe shades of brown distinguishing a muddy ceiling from a hardened floor, the shock of our large shadows against a chaste wall.
We travel back through the cave the way we came. The passage looks familiar, not identical. On the bank of the stream, Garry spots a blind crawdada translucent creature adapted to a cave life of complete darkness. Garry bends over and nudges. The crawdad doesn't stir.
"Do you think we did that?" I ask.
"I don't know," Garry says."It might've been there awhile, but it should have been washed away in the high waters on Monday." Garry picks up the crawdad and tosses it into the water. The current carries the glow-in-the-dark body down the stream.
"It's part of our impact on the cave," Garry says. "Now it will become part of the food chain."
We see one hibernating bat as we climb and descend the breakdown mountains. From our distance, Garry thinks it's a Pipistrelle.
"We don't get many Indiana Bats at Marengo," Garry says. Myotis sodalis, the Indiana Bat, is on the federal endangered species list. Only about 500,000 individuals live. A few hibernate in Marengo, and even more in nearby Wyandotte Cave. Environmentalists believe the commercialization of caves and the logging and burning of the forests where bats roost threaten to drag down their numbers even further.
As I climb down one of the steepest limestone slopes, Garry turns around and offers his hand. I shake my head. In the past five hours, my fear has transformed. I am confident.
I step down and hit a slick rock. Time freezes, and I imagine myself tumbling to the base of the slope. I shake away the vision and struggle to find a dry spot to secure my feet. With a will of their own, my arms spread like an eagle, opening my chest and stretching my underarms as I try to support my weight. I'm taut. The pain extends deep into my shoulders, but I do not lose my grip. I tighten my clutch, turning my right thumb inside out. A dark bruise will form the next day. Finally, pulling back with all my might, my feet settle.
I sit still, realizing my naivete. I had wanted to be master over the cave, to conquer its nature. Eventually, I crab walk the rest of the way to the ground.
We penetrate Pig Penour final passagewayon our stomachs in the same order in which we entered New Discovery. The ceiling hangs low, but the walls are close, unlike the Bat Crawl. I slop my way through, becoming one with the muddy passageway.
Midway, Garry stops. He lights up a crevice in the wall, illuminating the sleek backside of a cave salamander. He warns me to tread lightly. I laugh giddily; I'm wasted. It's not easy to slither through a tight mucky crawlway while minding a dainty salamander. I roll to my left side and try my best.
My arms emerge first from Pig Pen. Garry yanks out the rest of me and shakes my muddy glove.
"Not bad for a journalist," he says, grinning.
We listen to sloshing in Pig Penbellies lapping up the mud. Gary stands and works his way up the ladder. I nestle up to the cave wall. I'm content to shelter myself a bit more from the winter snow fluttering into the cave through the exit above the crown of my head.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication